A Very Happy Birthday to You, Mr. Wilde

Published: October 16, 2014

From Reading Room Assistant Katherine Monroe

Oscar Wilde

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

-Lord Henry Wotton, from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

October 16th marks the 160th birthday of Oscar Wilde, poet, author, lecturer, and well-known face of the Aesthetic Movement in both England and America.  The Clark Library’s own collection of books, manuscripts, letters, and other materials relating to this man is the most comprehensive in the world, making this library a must-see for anyone interested in Wildeiana.

Ravenna, *PR5820.R251 c.3
Ravenna, *PR5820.R251 c.3

Included in the collection is a first edition of his poem, “Ravenna,” which won the Newdigate Prize in 1878.  This book is even more precious for the hand-embroidered cover made by his wife, Constance, which depicts pomegranates (the fruit of love) and tiny gold sequins, interspersed with the title of the work, Oscar’s byline, and the initials AH and CW.  Also of note are two inscriptions inside, one by Oscar Wilde and the other by Constance, who gave the book to Arthur Humphreys, the AH of the initials on the cover.

Ravenna inside whole

A pen and ink drawing mounted on cardboard, captioned, “Aesthetics v. Athletics,” is particularly applicable to this sport-crazed season.  Aes v Ath wholeThe Aesthete, a caricaturized Oscar Wilde, remarks, “This is indeed a form of death, and entirely incompatible with any belief in the immortality of the soul,” while a crowd of bugling men race off in one direction behind him.

Salomé, *PR5820.S173E 1927G
Salomé, *PR5820.S173E 1927G

One of the Clark’s copies of Salomé, a play Wilde wrote in 1893, is an especially beautiful Art Deco edition, printed in 1927 by the Grabhorn Press, with wood block illustrations designed and cut by Valenti Angelo.  The frontispiece is especially vivid, with a nude Salomé, statuesque and elongated in true Art Deco form, gazing down upon the head of Iokanaan which has been offered up to her on the sword of the executioner.

Art Dec recto

Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour in America is well-represented at the Clark, as well, in the numerous pamphlets and programs advertising his route around the country.  One program for “Art Decoration,” a lecture he gave in Philadelphia on May 10th, 1882, is especially interesting for its printing technique.  A sheer sheet of paper, folded in half, has the program information on the front and a portrait of Wilde on the inside of the back fold.  When viewed together, the faint portrait supplies the background to the red lettering, providing a beautiful memento of the lecture that happily made its way to the Clark’s collection.

This is not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg for what the Clark has to offer anyone interested in the life of Oscar Wilde or his circle of friends and family.  Manuscripts, letters, trade cards, and even scripts from movie adaptations of his literary works fill the shelves of the collection.  For a man who spent his life seeking fame and attention, the collection stored at the Clark Library attests to his success.  Happy 160th birthday, Oscar Wilde!

One Comment

Joseph Bristow on

Thanks for this, Becky. Today The Guardian (UK) published an article on Peter Stoneley’s fresh research on Wilde’s experiences at Reading Prison: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/16/reading-jail-oscar-wilde-lover-photograph. Peter Stoneley’s essay, which The Guardian fails to mention and which contains his findings, has just been released for the Journal of Victorian Culture, which I co-edit: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13555502.2014.965500


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